Tuesday, February 4, 2014
“...'till fire purge all things new”: Year Four # 1
But really this is predominantly a concern for now, in 2007. For a thing like Star Trek: Year Four from IDW to exist, a number of things had to happen. We first needed to see Star Trek become once again a mainstream phenomenon and aggressively court its cultish, proto-Nerd Culture fanbase, swiftly ensuring that Star Trek was once again very much no longer a mainstream phenomenon. Then we had to let the franchise lie fallow for a few years before reviving the tie-in comic side of it as we kill time before that oft-rumoured new movie will hopefully make our franchise great again. And IDW, a company essentially built around catering towards Nerd Culture interests, or things that, through neglect, have become exclusively Nerd Culture interests (it's very telling one of their marquee titles is a Transformers book), was really the only publisher that could have picked up Star Trek at this point.
And so we get a Star Trek series with a very Nerd Culture agenda: Tie off those annoying loose ends from that bit of the franchise that was canceled so it gets a proper ending and observes proper Aristotelian narrative structure and also ensuring no new stories can ever be told in that series again, because if its one thing Nerds hate more than their favourite show getting canceled prematurely, it's having their favourite show continue, but without their explicit approval and permission.
But I'm jumping ahead of myself. IDW's Nerd Culture inklings most certainly do catch up with it, but this is most obvious in this miniseries' sequel series (how apropos) Star Trek: Final Mission. What we have with Year Four at first is really an attempt to revive a specific storytelling structure and formula, because while we've had twenty-five seasons of Star Trek since it, we've never really had an overt revival or reconstruction of the Original Series (despite how hard Rick Berman and Jeri Taylor may have tried at times with Star Trek Voyager and Enterprise). And I will give the creative team on this series credit, that's precisely what “Year Four, Issue Number 1” (which obnoxiously doesn't have any other title) feels like.
Out in deep space, the Enterprise encounters a gigantic mass of planetoids strung together in the shape of a DNA strand into a single mass in synchronous orbit with itself. Spock observes that The Strand, as we later learn it's called, once had room for eight hundred billion people, but, seemingly thanks to widespread ecological devastation on a *more* than planetary scale, it's now only home to twenty five. Beaming down, Kirk, Spock, McCoy and a redshirt (oh dear, I see where this is going) discover medical scientist Doctor Othello Beck, who calls The Strand possibly the greatest laboratory in the entire galaxy. Kirk and Spock meet a unicorn woman named Una, whom Beck claims to have created and considers his daughter (...I see where *this* is going). Una and the twenty three other inhabitants of The Strand who aren't Beck are called B'Nai, artificial biological life-forms created by Beck as part of his research into abolishing all sickness and discovering the secret to eternal life.
Suddenly, the redshirt gets killed by a werewolf, who Beck then kills himself. Spock beams back up to the ship while McCoy discovers Beck is equally as swift to anger with his other B'Nai, as he kills his assistant when he drops a beaker. Spock and Kirk discover that Beck's interest in The Strand is personal, as his wife is suffering from the terminal and incurable Logan's Disease. Una catches Kirk speaking to Beck's wife and knocks him out, locking up him and McCoy, and the B'Nai attack the Enterprise with nuclear warheads in retaliation, rendering the remnant of the system uninhabitable. Kirk and McCoy escape, only to discover Beck has killed himself and everyone else on The Strand for fear of his shame and obsession going public.
I suppose the best way for me to read this story is to praise the team for accomplishing something that was actually pretty hard to do in the actual run of the Original Series: Write a generic Star Trek story. The closest to that on the TV show itself we got was “The Gamesters of Triskelion”, and that was by Margaret Armen, a writer whose stories were typically defined by being exceptions to series' general trends. But this one dutifully ticks all the boxes we expect to see, and I mean *all* of them: A redshirt getting killed, a tragic but obsessive mad scientist fixated on immortality, a fleeting love interest for Kirk who is conveniently dealt with by the end of the story so we never see her again and Bones getting to say not only “He's dead, Jim” and “I'm sorry, Jim”, but also some variation on his “I'm a doctor not a...” catchphrase. This story seems more interested in going through the motions of what people *think* Star Trek was like, namely, the memorable catchphrases and setpieces, then actually positioning itself as a story that could plausibly have been made in 1969. I guess that's somewhat fitting for the first “episode” of this kind of revival, but it doesn't make for an especially captivating experience.
(What this doesn't excuse are the pointless references to both Bajor and Doctor Phlox, which serve absolutely no discernible purpose except to name-check a few more bits of the Star Trek universe).
It's a little frustrating to see this “season premier” aim so low, as there are a few things about it that are pretty intriguing. A gigantic planetary system modeled around a DNA strand whose inhabitants came together as part of a collective and then destroyed themselves is one of those brilliantly offbeat science fiction concepts and the sort of thing you can only do real justice to in a medium like sequential art. I only wish the actual story dealt with it a bit more than just with a throwaway exposition scene in the first couple of pages: There's a thread it could absolutely have picked up on about environmental responsibility and how societies that abuse their environments in favour of a rigid, technoscientific interpretation of progress will ultimately destroy themselves, and this story is bewilderingly uninterested in any of this. Which is all the worse considering this is supposed to be a story that could have been made in 1969 or 1970, the dawn of the environmental age. This was not a concept unfamiliar to science fiction authors of the time, such as, for example, Alan Dean Foster, who did wrote a number of space travel stories with this explicit moral.
I do like, however, the inclusion of two minor bridge characters who seem to be relief officers: There's an orange extraterrestrial with three arms and three legs who seems to handle navigation when Chekov's not around, and a cat lady communications officer who similarly covers for Uhura. These two characters are a great example of how Year Four can do things the Original Series couldn't because of the constraints of live action television, and I hope we see more of them. Speaking of the art, like the story itself, it's serviceable, but nothing spectacular. The characters and the Enterprise look more or less recognisable, but it's certainly not photorealistic, or, really, aiming for any kind of representationalism at all. Which is typically OK, except it doesn't go the surrealism route (or, actually, the accuracy route) either and it's a bit disappointing to see the artists not really able to capture the likeness of their subjects.
But all that said, while this may not be an especially promising start for Star Trek: Year Four, this issue is undeniable proof of something important: It is, in fact, possible to write generic Star Trek and generic Star Trek is infinitely preferable to crateringly awful Star Trek, which, if we're perfectly honest, a terrifyingly large portion of the Original Series actually was. On the other hand, it's tough to shake the niggling feeling that a story all about reviving a landmark television show, presumably out of love for its unfulfilled potential, should maybe have been made with a bit more obvious love than this was.